21 July 2011

La Gente Está Muy Loca

Walking around Novosibirsk late one night, I stumbled across an outdoors dance floor.  The dance floor was filled with mostly Siberian young men having a blast tearing it up with their own unique dance moves.  By "unique," I do not mean "good" or "skillful."  I mean "unique:"  I had never seen anything like it before.

Resembling a pack of schoolboys collectively under the spell of an epileptic fit, these kids where absolutely having a blast making rather uncoordinated movements to some repetitive dance tune made from a scratched record, or perhaps by scratching a record.  I tried to make sense of what I was seeing and finally excused the situation by a dismissive remark to the tune of "these folks are just crazy."

Just then, the disco tune's riffs stopped and a female's voice rang over the repetitive beat by saying "Johnny, la gente está muy loca*"  [the people are (in a transitive state of being) very crazy].  No lyric could have fit the moment any better - or could have been funnier at the time.

Another "funny" aspect of Novosibirsk was how I was frequently received by strangers on the road.  As I was hiking around the city, I noticed that as I approach people on isolated sidewalks, I found them startled to the degree that they switched the side of the road in order to avoid crossing paths with me.  That was a somewhat empowering experience, knowing that I could frighten strangers by merely walking down their streets' sidewalks.  But, when I was barred entry into two restaurants in the downtown area, I realized that something more sinister was afoot.

The explanation, as it turns out, is that my complexion resembles that of person coming from the Caucuses region of Russia, including folks from Chechnya (referred to in Russia as Caucasians).  Time and over again, I was told strange tales of massive criminal activity by every Caucasian (just "because that's who they are").  More reasonable explanations were along the lines that there is a massive emigration flow from the Caucuses (true) and emigration waves can have a disproportionally high representation of criminals among them.  As such, people's attitudes become tainted and stereotypes set in.

And, it follows that I am to be barred entry into some Novosibirsk eating establishments.  While this is amusing to me personally, I can see its pernicious effects at the social level if it is (and it appears to be) practiced at a wide scope.  One only needs to consider the self-destruction that racism in America has created as it has systematically locked out otherwise productive members of the society from the mainstream.

To put things in perspective, racism is not a Russian or American problem; it is a sad human condition.  Years ago, a Swedish friend was complaining to me about a sign on a Swiss restaurant that read "No dogs or Swedes allowed."  More recently, while I was discussing the merits of various Lithuanian cities with a young Lithuanian man, he stated that Kaunas (a smaller city) was a much better place than Vilnius (a larger city and Lithuania's capital).  When I asked why, he said "there are too many Polish people in Vilnius.  Kaunas is much nicer."

Let's go back to the aforementioned lyrics on the torturous dance floor:  La gente está muy loca. How unfortunately true ...

* Loca People - Sak Noel

13 July 2011

That Fine Line

Sometimes, there is a fine line that separates a sensible democracy from a screwball dictatorship, both figuratively and literally.  In this case, it is literal.

Which Side Would You Rather Be On?

There are two border postings separated by a gully in this photo.  The gully can be visually traced into the horizon.  Lithuania and the EU is on the right side; Belarus is on the other.  

If you are an entrepreneur or an ordinary citizen that wants a better life and a possibility to improve himself, which side would you rather be on?  What if you are part of a select few who manages to use the state's resources as a means of empowering and enriching himself, which side would you chose then?  

Just to be clear, these are not trick questions:  The mere and simple matter of ethics make one answer right and the other wrong.

11 July 2011

Siberian Experience

I had the opportunity to spend a week in Siberia.   Specifically, I was in Russia's third largest city, Novosibirsk.

NE:  The American Siberia

The American image of Siberia is this frozen, wolf-packed tundra where people are sent to die.  The mental image may look like the picture above, except what you see above is actually in Nebraska, USA.

My experience of (admittedly, the southern portion of) Siberia indicates that it resembles the American Midwestern landscape quite a bit, except that the winters are somewhat longer (but not necessarily colder).  The country side is vast, the sky is big, there are few natural structures that provide any relief, and there are plenty of bloodsucking critters flying around during the summer night.  In other words, one could be in Kansas -  or Siberia -  if the visual clues where just taken from the nature.

NY Bronx in 1975, Like Some Parts of Novosibirsk

Novosibirsk is like a Rust Belt city.  Once a thriving manufacturing city that armed the Soviet Army with tanks, the city is in middle of an economic restructuring and attempting to reuse its aged manufacturing capability for other means.  The downtown area is revived and rather nice.  Walk away from there, as I did in fairly significant hikes across the city, and you will find yourself in what seems to be in New York's public housing areas of the 1970s and 1980s.  Incidentally, those same housing structures seem to exist in any major Russian city, Moscow included.  The massive apartment blocks where once a wonder to behold as they provided private housing for families that used to live in shared apartments after WW II.

I followed a friend's tip and visited the Novosibirsk zoo.  Generally, I do not like zoos; in this regard, the Novosibirsk zoo did not disappoint.  It was yet another place where magnificently large beasts are kept in relatively tiny cages.  But, some of the animals on display there, specifically the Siberian eagle, were rather impressive.  These massive birds of prey were some three-feet tall and had a wingspan of at least twice as much.

Novosibirsk's Ob River:  A River Runs Through It

Following the same friend's tip, I took a river boat tour of the very large Ob River.  Ob River cuts Novosibirsk in half and, contrary to expectation, flows northward.  After studying Siberia's topography, this drainage pattern becomes obvious.  Blocked by the majestic Altai Mountains to the south, Siberia's abundant snowfall has to drain somewhere; and the path of least resistance is northward to the Kara Sea and eventually into the Arctic Ocean.

What I saw was just a tiny spec on the vast Siberian front and, from a nature perspective, I liked it.  There is more of Siberia to see, including Altai Mountains, Lake Baikal, and Kamchatka.  

02 July 2011

The Millenium-Long Cold War

The Cold War, it seems, is a construct of the Twentieth Century.  The end of the World War II marked the birth of two superpowers locked in ideological, political, and proxy military conflicts.  The dissolution of one of those superpowers, the Soviet Union, in 1991, marked the end of an era.  With it, one supposed, would come a world where Russia, a prominent world power with an immense potential, would be more tightly integrated into the Western fabric of democratic institutions.

That world may come; indeed there is recognition in some quarters of Russia that the current de facto one-party-rule and highly concentrated power structure should be reformed if Russia is to maintain her prominence.  However, there have been aspects of the Russian psyche that have puzzled me since I took residence in Moscow.  For instance, I have been puzzled about why Russia insists on defining itself is "not Western," as evidenced by its asynchronous Christmas holiday season, among other facts.

Take modern Turkey, for instance.  Turkey, a Muslim country and the remnant of the powerful and enduring Ottoman Empire, is a radically transformed nation.  Formerly using the Arabic alphabet, Turkey adopted the Latin alphabet under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.   The country also swapped its weekends from the Muslim Friday to the Christian Saturday and Sunday, in line with Western Christian powers.  Turkey is now seeking EU membership in its quest to become more tightly integrated with Europe.  Basically, there is precedence of massive realignment by a former power in order to march in a more lockstep formation with prevailing world trends.

So, what is happening in Russia?  For one, it is clear that neither Mr. Yeltsin nor Mr. Putin, Russia's most influential leaders post Soviet Union, have been the types of transformative leaders that Mr. Atatürk was. Second, Turkey's transformations came after a very long and relative rapid periods of decline that left Turkey in a very weakened state (as compared to its Ottoman days) badly in need of transformation. In other words, there have been both the lack of a sufficient reason and a lack of a right type of leader to make the transformation.  But, there is another reason:  The third reason, I believe, has to do with the strength of religion, and the culture that it brings with itself, in Russia.

And So Began The Cold War

The history of the East-West Schism of 1054 is rather long and involved to be discussed in a respectable form here.  The key elements are that Christianity's center shifted to Constantinople with the Roman's sacking of Jerusalem. As Christianity became legalized and increasingly influential in the Roman Empire, a rift started between churches in Rome and Constantinople.  Roman's adoption of Christianity were followed by a series of changes to Christian practices.  Those changes were looked upon suspiciously as potentially heretical acts by the eastern practitioners of the faith.  This multi-century rift between the East and the West became increasingly exacerbated as the Roman Empire lost control over its territory and was increasingly incapable of uniting its Latin and Greek centers through a common structure.  All this culminated with the mutual excommunications of what are now the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054. The sacking of Constantinople in 1204 and the looting of The Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) by the Fourth Crusade was also a key event that further pushed the Eastern and Western churches apart.

The Church of Holy Wisdom, Unwisely Sacked by Crusaders

While there were a few reunion attempts, such as the Second Council of Lyon and the Council of Florence, they all ultimately failed.  A subtext of these failures was an Eastern suspicion of the West; the motive, it was perceived, was less of a reunion and more of an expansion of Western Church's influence of its eastern counterpart.  That eastern sentiment was fully reinforced when Ottomans sacked Constantinople while the West failed to send any meaningful military reinforcement to defend the city against Muslim invaders.  In this context, the Eastern Church viewed the sacking of Constantinople as the West's attempt to destroy the Eastern Church once and for all.

Isolated from the West for centuries, the Eastern Orthodox Church operated independently but found new hope and influence with the rising powers of Moscow.  And with Tsar Peter I's abolishment of patriarchate in 1721, the now-Russian Orthodox Church effectively became a governmental department. With that, came the infusion of suspicious opinions of Western powers and their expansive ambitions into the Russian psyche.  It should be noted that Russia's most memorable conflicts, wars against the Poles (Catholic), Swedes (Lutheran), French (Catholic), Germans (Catholic and Lutheran), and ultimately the Cold War with Americans (Protestant and Catholic), was waged against Christians whose faith was rooted in the Rome Catholic Church and derived from there.  Conversely, there have never been lasting or memorable conflicts with a nation of Eastern Orthodox faith, like Ukraine or Bulgaria (two former empires that waged many wars).

Clearly, the above text is rife with generalizations and inaccuracies in the details, but the arc of the story holds.  Within this context, it is easier to understand why Russians are Russians first and generally suspicious of the West.  There are centuries of legacy in this point of view, and the Cold War was a modern manifestation of this backdrop heavily influenced by new factors of the evolving world.

The Sputnik Moment:  Still Keeping a Suspicious Eye On the West After All Those Years

Because the Cold War is a relatively new, powerful construct in world's history, it is natural to evaluate many current-day affairs in its context.  However, a longer perspective on the East-West rift may shed better light on why the world is today as it is.